A lab worker extracts formaldehyde from a fabric sample taken from a pair of boy’s pants. (Not shown: what formaldehyde
does to you after you breathe it for a while.)
[ Image Source ]
The trouble with formaldehyde, as with so many other chemicals used in manufacturing, is generally not one of textiles and other products individually exceeding the regulatory limits for its application; very probably, in fact, if our exposure were limited to a class of products, almost no one would suffer a reaction to it. However, nothing exists in isolation. In addition to the resin used to make clothes wrinkle-free, formaldehyde is also used in fire retardants applied to sheets, blankets, pillowcases and comforters; it appears in waterproofing agents for outerwear, raincoats, boots and sporting goods; it shows up as a preservative in plywood, particle board and cardboard; it is used in detergents, dryer sheets and fabric softeners; and, in smaller but varying quantities, it figures in the manufacture of other items too numerous and ubiquitous to enumerate.
In other words, formaldehyde is everywhere. And its impacts on health are cumulative: The more sources of it you have in your life, and the longer you’re exposed to them, the more likely it is that you’ll become sensitive to it.
To date, thankfully, my family and I have suffered only what appears to be a relatively brief episode of such sensitization, and it was the result of a series of developments unlikely to be replicated.
In 2009, there was a sewer leak under our bedroom floor. Since our landlord found it more profitable to deny the problem existed than to resolve it, we tried to suppress the odors ourselves by flushing bleach down the toilet; this helped for a while, but then became ineffectual, so we stopped. Several days later, I cleaned the toilet bowl, using white vinegar to remove lime deposits. Within a few hours, the vinegar leaked out under our bedroom and combined with the bleach; the resulting chemical reaction liberated elemental chlorine, which then appears to have permeated our bedroom in sufficient concentrations to react with the humidity-moistened particle board in our bedframe, causing outgassing of formaldehyde.
Between the hydrogen sulfide from the sewer leak, the chlorine from the initial chemical reaction and the formaldehyde, this effectively drove us from our bedroom and forced us to sleep in our living room for seven months until the emissions subsided. Meanwhile, my wife and I had become sensitive to formaldehyde, and had to discard all of the bedding once we found that the formaldehyde had permeated it and couldn’t be washed out; we also discarded the bed — with its contaminated particle board frame — and bought a new one. But in replacing the bedding under urgent pressure to have something to sleep under during the cold nights common here, we discovered something dismaying: All the new bedding products were heavily treated with formaldehyde fire retardants, and it took us several washings of each item before it could be comfortably used — until then, we suffered burning eyes, sore throats and headaches.
Fortunately, the formaldehyde subsided over time, and we have not been sensitive to it since. But I remember several weeks during which to enter the bedding section — or the detergent section — of a department store triggered allergic reactions that would have been incapacitating had we, for example, had to work in those stores; even a brief exposure was excruciating. And all this has taught me a new understanding of the ubiquity of formaldehyde and other harmful compounds used routinely in manufacturing most of our consumer goods: Mostly we remain unconscious of these poisons that pervade our existence, but they are always there, and when our bodies can take no more of them, we suffer profoundly.